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Winter 2004 cover

National Observer Home > No. 61 - Winter 2004 > Legal Notes

Are Judges' Salaries Too High?

I.C.F. Spry

In April 2004 the Victorian government of Mr. Bracks announced that it would reject a recommended 13.6 per cent rise in judge's salaries since this would exceed community expectations. (Mr. Bracks was facing demands for pay increases by other groups, which it was wished to restrain to less than five per cent, and he doubtless believed that it would be difficult to satisfy these groups if judges obtained far larger increases.) Victorian judges were already receiving salaries that might be regarded as high: for example, the Chief Justice received $256,300 per annum and other Supreme Court judges $227,100, together with generous pension rights and other perquisites.

Mr. Bracks' announcement led to protests from various Victorian judges and, of course, from representatives of the legal profession (many of these representatives hoping themselves to attain subsequently judicial office).

These protests were effective to a limited degree in the short term. It was announced that Victorian judges would receive immediate three per cent increases, with a further three per cent increase from 1st July 2004. But in the long term, the judges had a major victory. The Bracks government lost its nerve, and it was announced that further salary increases would be phased in, so that by July 2007 the judges' incomes would have parity with the very generous incomes of federal judges.

A difficulty with the large increases in salaries that are regularly received by judges is that they are not unnaturally resented by other groups whose increases are much smaller. Nurses and schoolteachers, for example, who are asked to limit their claims, are entitled to question why similar limits do not apply to judges.

In considering judges' salaries the following matters are apposite.

First, although high quality judges must be sought, there is no evidence that lawyers of desirable qualities (as opposed to those who are financially greedy) are significantly influenced by judicial salaries in the sense that they would not accept appointment if those salaries were twenty per cent less. Most lawyers who become judges are influenced by a desire to have a position of perceived importance and status. They are almost invariably persons whose children have long grown up, and whose mortgages have been paid out or are almost paid out. They do not require salaries of a large amount that might be necessary for young lawyers with different financial responsibilities.

Secondly, in so far as financial matters are concerned, an important attraction of being a judge has long been found in the extraordinarily generous pensions that judges receive, which are often non-contributory, and which may be as high as approximately $150,000 per annum. The prospect of these pensions is attractive to many barristers, for example, who have lived expensively and not saved adequately for their retirements. But the provision of these high pensions gives an advantage to judges that is not available to others, and there is much to be said for the view that these pensions should be reduced and that a more moderate system based partially on a deduction from judges' incomes should be introduced.

Barristers' and solicitors' organisations appear to go too far in supporting over-generous conditions of employment for judges. On the one hand there is the hope of many senior members of such organisations that they themselves will be appointed as judges or magistrates. On the other hand there is a culture of extreme and indeed excessive deference towards judges on the part of barristers. Barristers must appear before judges on behalf of clients, and there is a perception - in many cases justified - that if they are not sufficiently agreeable and deferential to the judges they will be treated with less courtesy in front of their clients or may have their clients' positions prejudiced by unfavourable rulings. In these circumstances support by professional associations for large increases in judicial salaries must be viewed in its context.

National Observer No. 61 - Winter 2004